The art of weather lore is fascinating. Use the natural signs of the countryside to predict whether it will be rain, sleet or snow.
Weather lore involves anticipating the weather. Using weather lore to predict the weather has been a principal concern of man since he crawled out of the swamp and will, no doubt, continue to be an obsession until his time on this planet ends. The very existence of Stone Age hunter-gatherers and Iron Age men depended on their ability to interpret changes in the rhythm of seasons accurately by observing the patterns of nature: the colour of the sky at dusk or dawn; the shape of clouds or the direction of the wind; the behaviour of animals and the migration of birds; the activity of insects and mammals; or a dearth or abundance of plant growth. Communities that got it right were the ones that survived, passing this vital knowledge on from generation to generation. We are all bedevilled by our ongoing concern about the weather, why do the weathermen always get it wrong? Using weather lore you could get it right yourself.
Our Neolithic ancestors, the first agriculturalists, increased their understanding of the weather by a detailed study of the cycle of the sun and moon and erecting stone circles, henges and monoliths (the ultimate symbols of prehistoric achievement) which were aligned to the winter and summer solstices, the equinoxes and lunar phenomena. Gradually, as a primitive calendar evolved, it became apparent that the weather conditions on certain days influenced the elements during the following few weeks. These observations were added to the existing Celtic seasonal festivals of Beltane (1May), Samhain (1 November), Imbolc (1February), and Lugnasadh (1 August) as occasions for worship of the sun gods or relevant sky deity for that particular day.
USE SAINTS’ DAYS TO PREDICT THE WEATHER
When Christian missionaries reached these islands in the first few centuries AD, they were faced with the task of transforming deep-rooted heathen practices into Christian dedications. Appreciating the significance of weather worship for the pagan population, the church began to attach saints’ names to the days of Celtic weather prophecy in order to align the two belief systems. The saints’ days of prediction became a calendar around which agriculture was planned and, as the river of history flowed through the centuries, generations of observant country people, sailors and fishermen added a mass of weather beliefs, sayings and adages. To help remember them, the majority took the form of rhyming coup-lets, which produced some of the most evocative prose and poetry in the English language. They became part of culture and education, and together they constitute a priceless treasury of folklore and weather lore that is a unique part of our national heritage.
In the Fifties, my father still used heavy shire horses on the farm. His horseman, Jim Akehurst, was typical of the older generation of countryman who could recite the saints’ days of weather prophecy and monthly prediction by heart. In the front parlour of his cottage were three framed samplers, painstakingly stitched by his grandmother. Two catalogued all the days of prediction and how the saint had been martyred, the third listed the quarter and cross-quarter days, and their relevant weather prophecies. Since the Middle Ages, the quarter days were the four dates each year when servants were hired and rents and rates became due. They were also the dates when magistrates visited remote areas to adjudicate outstanding cases and suits. Quarter days fell on four religious festivals, three months apart, close to the two solstices and two equinoxes which marked the start of the seasons: Lady Day, 25 March – the Feast of the Annunciation; Midsummer’s Day, 24 June – the Feast of St John the Baptist; Michaelmas Day, 29 September – the Feast of St Michael; and Christmas Day, 25 December. The cross-quarter days were holidays in between quarter days: Candlemas, 2 February – the Purification of the Virgin; May Day, 1 May; Lammas, 1 August – the Feast of the First Fruits; All Hallows Day, 1 November – All Saints’ Day. Each of these dates has its origins in pagan festivals of weather worship, subsequently appropriated by the Christian church.
THE AGRICULTURAL YEAR
The pattern of Jim’s life was planned around the quarter days, cross-quarter days and saints’ days of weather prediction and this was how he kept in mind key events. If a mare foaled on 11 June, for example, he would remember the foal as having been born on St Barnabas’ Day, which, according to weather lore, is always fine and, traditionally, marks the start of haymaking. Similarly, if a notable incident occurred on 3 August, it would be lodged in his memory as having happened two days after Lammas, one of the quarter days, when corn is supposed to ripen as much by day as by night.
The agricultural year started on 1 October. The harvest was over, the quarterly rent paid, Harvest thanksgiving celebrated and now farmers looked onward to winter’s challenge and the following year’s harvest. November, full of portent, was known as the black month, but like poor, mad John Clare, the “peasant poet”, I love its stark beauty:
Sybil of months and worshipper of winds,
I love thee, rude and boisterous as thou art:
And scraps of joy my wandering ever finds
’Mid thy uproarious madness.
November marked the beginning of the dark half of the year for the Celts, who celebrated the start of the month with the three-day festival of Samhain. Livestock were slaughtered; some as sacrifices but most to keep communities alive through the winter. Because of this, the Celts called November the “blood month”, a name which lasted until the late 19th century. Samhain, like other Celtic festivals, became incorporated into the Christian calendar and was reinvented as All Saints’ Day, 1 November. According to Jim’s sampler;
On first November if weather is clear
’Tis the end of the sowing you’ll do for the year.
It meant that a clear day presaged frost and this, coupled with the shortening hours of daylight, put an end to the autumn sowing. Ten days later, at Martinmas, there were further pre-dictions, which often prove accurate today.
If ducks do slide at Martinmas
At Christmas they will swim;
If ducks do swim at Martinmas
At Christmas they will slide.
This indicated that a cold snap before Christmas is often followed by a mild winter and vice versa. Similarly:
If leaves fall not by Martinmas Day, a cruel winter’s on its way.
The weather on 23 November, St Clement’s Day, set the scene for the forthcoming winter. (He was martyred by being thrown into the Black Sea attached to an anchor.)
St Clement gives the winter.
This was reinforced two days later on St Catherine’s Day. (She was so pious she bled milk when beheaded in AD 279.)
As St Catherine, foul or fair,
So ’t’will be next Febryair.
The Church was so busy cramming December with religious services in an effort to quash any residue of the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the Norse festival of Yule, that there seems to have been little room for saints’ days of weather prediction. An exception is 21 December, St Thomas Didymus’ Day. (Thomas the Apostle was said to have carried Christianity to India in about AD45 and been speared to death.)
If it freeze on St Thomas’ Day, the price of corn will fall;
If it be mild, the price will rise.
This reflects the belief that a good summer follows a bad winter, leading to a glut of grain, and that a bad summer follows a mild winter, leading to a scarcity.
Always of immense significance, wind direction on New Year’s Eve was believed to set the weather pattern for the year.
If New Year’s Eve the wind blows South
It betokeneth warmth and growth.
If West, much milk and fish in the sea.
If North, cold and storms there will be.
If East, the trees will bear much fruit.
If North East, then flee it, man and brute.
January is a disturbing month; the hours of daylight are imperceptibly getting longer, but the landscape remains bare and sterile, and winter still stretches away into the distance. There is hope and expectation if the weather is clear on the 22nd, St Vincent’s Day. (He was a martyr flayed and cooked on a gridiron by the Emperor Diocletian in AD304.)
If on St Vincent Day the sky is clear,
More wine than water will crown the year.
The weather predictions three days later, on the day Ananias, the Bishop of Damascus was tortured and stoned to death in AD 40, serves to illustrate how terrifying the winters were to superstitious rural communities.
If St Ananias’ Day be fair and clear,
It betokeneth a happy year.
But if it chance to snow or rain
Dear will be all sorts of grain.
If clouds or mist do dark the sky
Great store of birds and beasts will die.
And if the winds do fly aloft
Then wars shall vex the kingdom oft.
MODERN METEOROLOGY v WEATHER LORE
Has modern meteorology destroyed the credibility of centuries of perceived weather wisdom? In the short term, traditional weather lore remains a reliable guide to daily changes in the climate. Probably the most well-known phrase, Red sky at night, a shepherd’s delight. Red sky in the morning, a shepherd’s warning, continues to be as consistently accurate as it was when Jesus is reported to have observed: “When it is evening, ye say, it will be fair weather for the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today for the sky is red and lowering.” (Matthew XVI, 2–3) In the longer term, some of the monthly and saints’ days prophecies lack credibility. This is largely because we are undergoing a period of cyclical climate change and, as the Met Office admits, our weather is so chaotic at the best of times that forecasting beyond about a week is highly speculative. Nevertheless, the saints’ days and prophecies have their place, if only because they are part of our literary history and, not so long ago, formed the calendar of rural life. Apart from anything else, it is fun following them through the year and seeing which prove correct.